BAGHDAD — The role of the U.S. military in Iraq over the next year could look a lot like the scene of a joint U.S.-Iraqi military patrol in a northwest Baghdad rail yard this weekend.
Iraqi police talked with property owners, broke locks and led the way through about 40 buildings at the compound. The Americans followed with tools the Iraqis lacked, such as bomb-sniffing dogs and an explosives team. A team of U.S. military police advisers was there, too, to look for things the Iraqis could do to improve their tactics.
The operation was part of the plan for the U.S. to reduce its presence in Iraq and turn over more authority to the Iraqi government, outlined in the new security agreement between the countries that will take effect on Jan. 1. The agreement calls for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
"Unless we enhance their ability to secure their own environment, we'll never leave," said Lt. Col. John Vermeesch of Roscommon, Mich., who commands the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kans., which assisted the Iraqis in the rail yard search.
His battalion already is implementing many of the provisions of the security agreement, which requires the U.S. to clear its military operations with Iraqi leaders in advance, get warrants to detain Iraqis and pull its combat troops out of urban areas by next June.
Those changes will limit the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and make room for the two countries to build on "hard-earned gains" in security, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, wrote in a letter to his soldiers last week.
"We must remain adaptive and steadily reduce our visibility," he wrote. "We must also maintain our effectiveness in accomplishing our mission."
Some of the conditions in the security agreement must be worked out over the next month. The unresolved items include the creation of joint committees to oversee the transition of authority and the establishment of a new process that will allow American forces to obtain warrants to detain Iraqi citizens.
The rail yard search was planned by the Iraqi National Police and a U.S. infantry company in Vermeesch's battalion. Vermeesch said the American unit keeps its Iraqi counterparts informed of its plans and withholds information only about the movements of high-ranking officers and supply runs.
The American unit that helped plan the effort is stationed in a corner of an Iraqi base where the Americans advise the Iraqis and conduct joint operations. The Iraqis say they're eager to take on more responsibility and contend that they're prepared to manage much of their own defense.
"We started to take the first step years ago," said Iraqi National Police Gen. Abdul Karim Farha Sharhad, who helped plan the rail yard search. "We've become bigger and bigger. Now I can tell you we're ready to take over."
Some U.S. military and civilian officials, however, question whether the Iraqis are prepared and equipped for the challenges ahead, and whether they've put their sectarian conflicts, particularly between the Shiite Muslims who dominate the security forces and rival Sunnis, behind them or just on hold.
While Iraq's parliament debated the security agreement with the U.S., Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al Obeidi and others identified key vulnerabilities in the nation's security, including the facts that Iraq has no navy or air force to defend itself from its neighbors.
Some worried that a hasty pullout would open a window for a resurgence of sectarian violence, but Sharhad said that violence is unlikely to return to 2006 and 2007 levels, despite several recent suicide attacks in Fallujah and Mosul.
"In my opinion, the special groups, militias and thugs will have their last breath within six months," he said.
American military officers agree that Iraqi public opinion is turning against sectarian violence, but they have some reservations about the strength of the Iraqi security forces.
In April, the special U.S. Inspector General for Iraq raised questions about a shortage of experienced officers among Iraq's police and military. His report also said that the Iraqi security forces lack a reliable supply network.
Capt. Andrew Chovancek, who led the U.S. company on the Sunday mission, cited the same weaknesses in the Iraqi police. He's assigned three platoons to work closely with Iraqi units, giving his company a chance to mentor officers and creating a conduit for the two sides to trade information.
One of their focuses is improving the ability of the Iraqi police to conduct criminal investigations, a task that could make it easier for Iraq to follow through on its plans to withdraw its army from urban areas within the next year.
The missions are different than what veterans in the battalion experienced on previous tours to Iraq. Vermeesch was last stationed in Sadr City, a mostly Shiite Muslim Baghdad slum, in 2005 and 2006, when gunfights erupted between U.S. forces and Shiite militias. Those conflicts aren't happening now in the northwest Baghdad district the battalion patrols.
The setup for the Sunday search left downtime for the Americans, except for the ones in the canine units, who seemed to be in every building.
"It's not that exciting for our guys, but that's the phase we're at in the type of war we're fighting," said Lt. Ryan Fisher of the 18th Infantry Regiment's 1st Battalion.
(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)